Down Among the Dead Men:
A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician
(Soft Skull Press, 2010)
What lay in front of us was a headless body; fully clothed, but headless. Curiosity got the better of me and I just had to pull back the top of the body bag to see what other injuries this poor individual had sustained. Resting between his knees lay his motorbike helmet…‘Where’s his head?’ I asked.
Clive picked up the helmet with his gloved hands and said in a voice of perfect seriousness, ‘He had it gift-wrapped.’ Hanging from the bottom of it were ragged tatters of flesh and what appeared to be cervical vertebrae…looked into the visor and found myself fixated by the face behind it…As I was preparing myself to start the evisceration, I began to wonder how we could hope to make any difference to this man.
2010 has been a year of the macabre in creative nonfiction. First came the popular The Poisoner’s Handbook by award-winning science writer Deborah Blum, followed closely by Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City which I reviewed in the Rail last September. Michelle Williams’s Down Among the Dead Men: A Year in the Life of a Mortuary Technician completes the grisly triptych and differs from the other two in that it’s not a history lesson but a you-are-there contemporary memoir. Set in suburban Gloucestershire, about two hours west of London, the book details Williams’s rise from somewhat passionless health care assistant for the National Health Service to medical technical officer working in a hospital morgue, to manager of her own hospital mortuary.
The most surprising element of the narrative is Williams herself, who is neither a serious physician, impassioned science nerd, nor weird loner. She is a young, attractive, humdrum suburbanite with a standup boyfriend, an apartment not far from parents whom she looks in on regularly, a couple of adorable dogs, and a girlie love for shopping. This Bridget Jones’s Diary approach allows any reader an easy entrée into her carcass-strewn hospital underworld, and will likely make the book particularly engaging for high school girls and young women searching for themselves while trying to settle on a career.
In an era of TV, when just about anything medically gruesome is celebrated in loving, graphic detail, from House to CSI to Bones, Williams’s accounts of the nitty-gritty of post-mortem exams will seem familiar, if startling. This is, however, real life, and many of the hideous images detailing exactly what pathologists and mortuary workers must face daily are difficult to shake. Black humor abounds in the attempts to perform post-mortems upon the morbidly obese and auto-asphyxiated, cross-dressing government agents.
Thankfully Williams’s reminiscence does more than delight in the creepy and the ghoulish; it breathes life into the mortuary workers themselves, a mostly male variety of personalities who initiate Williams into a world largely unseen and avoided by the general public, as well as hospital staff. The author hoists the so-called “bottom feeders” of the hospital, generally viewed with distaste and suspicion, to a place of honor. She takes us through their shared moments of heartbreak: the uncomfortable post-mortem of a three-year-old girl who has just been accidentally run over by her grandfather; an entire family who has been literally burnt to a crisp in a newsworthy highway pileup. After such trying episodes, the staff must quickly reassemble the bodies and, when possible, rehumanize them for viewing before washing up and stepping out to meet the victims’ distraught family members; this is not a job for the lily-livered.
Despite its energy, a narrative drive would make this a page-turner, rather than a relentless assault of cadaverous reflections. There is little plot to speak of; Williams and her coworkers eviscerate and sometimes drink together but keep out of each other’s private matters, resulting in little drama to sink one’s teeth into. Even the author’s personal life couldn’t be better: her boyfriend gladly lends her his credit card so she can go on shopping sprees, and her parents, brother, and Gramp are lovely and supportive enjoyers of pub crawls. Williams’s two lives seem like randomly interspersed, freestanding episodes that could be arranged in any order without any noticeable impact. Embarrassingly, the majority of the book’s memorable mortuary anecdotes never actually happened to the narrator herself but were recounted to her by older co-workers years after they happened; they are hearsay, making for a largely third person pseudomemoir.
Nonetheless, one stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the author when the inevitable happens just before the dénouement. She must face a death in her own family and struggle to keep her insider’s view of death, morgues, and funeral homes in check while dealing with her own bereavement and her own grieving family for the first time in her adult life. Although Williams is no kid, her book is, at its core, a coming-of-age story about a young woman finding her identity and becoming a mature adult.